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A Rose by any other name…"
Nurseries tend to alphabetize plants by their Latin names because each plant has a single, unique Latin name, versus what can be several different common names for the same plant. It makes things simpler and more consistent, right? So, how can the Latin name change?
Taxonomy is about the organization of plants and animals by their mutually-held characteristics and attributes. When Swedish Botanist Carl Linnaeus undertook the project of classifying plants in this way in the 1700s it was an innovative endeavor; he is to this day known as "the father of taxonomy." It was also an extremely beneficial project, as it organized the increasing number of plants being collected from around the world in an age of botanical exploration. We have much to be grateful for, due to his foresight. The classification of plants actually is made up of about ten different strata (including Kingdom, Class, Family, etc.) ending finally with the genus and species that Linnaeus (thankfully) popularized as a two-word botanic "name" for each plant.
There is an international group of taxonomists that are in charge of the nomenclature, so changes aren't done willy-nilly. But as time has gone by, new discoveries are made; technological advances have brought new molecular data to light, so distinctions and similarities can be more finely-drawn between different plants and the classifications get restructured and reshuffled a bit in the process.
Fortunately (for us – the botanists still get to be driven crazy), most of the name changing happens at the level of "Family," but the trickle down sometimes makes its way to genus, and so we must rearrange our tables a bit at the nursery.
Here then, is a list of a few of the NW native plants that have gone through a genus change in the recent past:
Disporum hookeri (hooker's fairy bell) = Prosartes hookeri
Disporum smithii (large flowered fairy bell) = Prosartes smithii
Smilecina racemosa (false solomon seal) = Maianthemum racemosa
Smilecina stellata (starry false solomon seal) = Maianthemum stellata
(Both of these join the ranks with Maianthemum dilatatum, or false lily of the valley, which is why that genus may seem familiar)
(Oh, and Streptopus amplexifolius, known as twisted stalk, and which to the untrained eye looks a lot like a cousin of the Smilecinas-now-Maianthemums, did not change. Yet. It's a puzzle for sure.)
…Then, of course, there are the "synonyms" in botanic names, like Cornus sericea / Cornus stolonifera, and Malus fusca / Pyrus fusca. But we're not going there.
New: Prosartes smithii
New: Maianthemum racemosa
New: Maianthemum stellatum
All photos above are from Hansen's Northwest Native Plant Database
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(or, "it's all Greek to me")
Well, sometimes it's Greek, but most often it's Latin that makes up the taxonomy of plants, and thanks to Carl Linnaeus, the commonly-used format is the two-word botanic name that we're accustomed to seeing; made up of the genus and the descriptive epithet.
While the genus occasionally changes, as mentioned, the epithet rarely does. Why? Because it is usually created from one of two (unchanging) categories:
For example, some NW native plants have the epithet lewisii (as in Philadelphus lewisi), named after Meriweather Lewis of the exploring duo Lewis & Clark, as a way to credit him with discovering our native mock orange.
More commonly, however the epithet refers to characteristics of the plant itself:
rubrum, sanguineus, roseus, coccineus, all refer to the color red. Alnus rubrum, therefore, is red alder.
Oftentimes the epithet is a combination of a Latin root combined with a more common term – the most applicable being:
folia/folium/folius, meaning leaf or leaved, and
flora/florus, meaning flower
So a wee bit of Latin knowledge will have you understanding characteristics of plants simply by their name – for example:
angustus = narrow, so angustifolius means narrow-leaved and angustiflorus means narrow-flowered.
parva = small, so parvafolius means small-leaved and parvaflorus means small-flowered.
Okay, maybe a little nerdy. But kind of fun, if you like that kind of thing. Try it – you'll suddenly find you'll be able to understand even unfamiliar plants by their name (and this is not just about native plants, by the way, but of all plants).